Frank,regular and constructive feedback is hard to give or receive in any work relationship. For example, HR performance appraisals are dreaded by both the boss and the employee. If you are a great leader your employees deserve to know how they are doing on a frequent basis , according to the legendary Jack Welch (Also see Jack Welch 4E's and one P). But when it comes to suppliers and buyers in B2B markets things take an interesting turn. We tend to extend our "fear of feedback" to B2B relationships. Here is how this fear plays out:
- Trust and Commitment: In marketing and particularly B2B markets, B2B relationships are similar to long term human marriage in contrast to a "one-night" stand. One of the most prominent research papers on this is "Developing Buyer-Seller Relationships," by Dwyer,Schurr and Oh. As couples from Valentine's day celebrations will agree, and marriage counselors confirm, you have to be pretty careful with feedback! And the foundation of marriages is trust on the other partner to look out for your interest and a long term commitment.
- Trust is upto individuals: In B2B relationships it's trust that you will look out for the business interests of the other. For example, if a supply chain rationalization is on the horizon because of a merger, the buyer needs to give the seller a heads up to plan better. Similarly, if there is an early stage innovation that can help the buyer's process, then the supplier needs to come forth. Unless there is personal trust between the dealing individuals both these situations are hard to imagine. For unlike marriages both marketing and supply chain both try to hedge bets and reduce risk.
- Risk reduction operates in Marketing and Supply Chain: You cannot have a single supplier who has 80% of the volume of a large buy, thus the supply chain folks try to split the business up to avoid over-dependence on one supplier. Similarly, the sales folks understand that their company cannot depend 80% on just one customer. Depending on the perception of risk and power on both sides, people tend to be less forthright than their roles demand.
But the above still leaves us with the question as to who should be initiating feedback? Should it be the B2B Seller or the B2B Buyer? And here is our take:
The B2B Marketer is the knowledge specialist and should take charge of initiating feedback: The contracting of a supplier in B2B Markets is always because the buying organization does not have or does not want to do that work though employees in-house.It's simply not the core competence of the buyer organization. Over time, in many organizations (eg. in the auto industry) even the design and architectural knowledge resides with the supplier. So once you have started supplies, it's upto you to initiate feedback on how well the goals of the buying organization are being met. Getting to know the user of your product and looking out for great results for your user can put you on the path of sustained success and referrals.
Supply chain folks - just connect the users to the B2B Marketer personnel: Once the contract is awarded, a better option is to introduce the B2B Marketing folks and their operating people to your users and encourage operating personnel on both sides to interact. This way feedback is timely and corrective action can be much faster as folks involved with implementation are in regular touch with each other. Supply-chain folks can then get much better feedback from users at the time of contract renewal or annual review for multi-year contracts.
Looking for feedback of success at the level of the user is the best bet for the B2B marketer.